From Hillary to evolution: Who decides what’s taught?

In 2006,  Cobb County gave up its legal battle to put a note into thousands of its biology books saying the theory of evolution is just a theory, not fact.  States still face challenges  to evolution in their standards.
In 2006,  Cobb County gave up its legal battle to put a note into thousands of its biology books saying the theory of evolution is just a theory, not fact.  States still face challenges  to evolution in their standards.

When the Texas State Board of Education voted to boot Hillary Clinton and Helen Keller from its social studies standards a week ago, critics around the country blasted the decision as small-minded and provincial.

Now, Clinton is taught in Texas high school history classes, while Keller is discussed in third grade. But Texas, like many states, is streamlining its history lessons in response to criticisms that students memorize names, dates and battles without ever understanding why they matter.

Georgians also won't find Hillary Clinton or Helen Keller in the 157-pages of social studies standards adopted in 2016. Nor will they find, among others, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the first black woman to enroll at the University of Georgia, or Nancy Hart, legendary hero of the American Revolution.

As is the case in Texas, the fact that the standards don’t speak to these women by name doesn’t mean teachers can’t. “Standards represent the maximum that the state will test, but the minimum that should be taught,” said Joy Hatcher, Georgia Department of Education social studies program manager.

In overhauling its social studies standards, GaDOE received 22,000 comments from teachers and parents around the state. A major theme: Students were drowning in names and dates, but not always grasping the larger significance.

“What we saw was that teachers were overwhelmed by the sheer amount of content they were required to teach by the state standards,” said Hatcher. Committees went to work to develop standards that focused on the big picture rather than on rote memorization of dates and names. “That does not preclude teachers from teaching individuals as case studies and examples of those larger events,” said Hatcher.

The concern, however, is that if it’s not on the test, it won’t be taught. State end-0f-year exams, including the Georgia Milestones, don’t touch on content that’s not in the standards.

“I understand that the state needs to list specific names in order to test basic knowledge and to measure students’ ability to understand the impact of specific people and events,” said retired middle school social studies teacher Penny Ratfliff, a former Georgia Economics Teachers of the Year. “However, any list cannot possibly include all important people. Hopefully, social studies teachers are knowledgeable and confident enough to present people and events that are crucial to a broader understanding of the big picture of Georgia’s history.”

While the state sets standards for what every child should know and be able to do by the end of each grade, it gives districts and teachers leeway on creating curriculum to teach those standards. "This opens the door to using people in history previously uncredited for their efforts in different events. Teachers can find source materials best suited for their classrooms," said Hatcher. (DOE provides in-depth resources in multiple formats for teachers.)

Despite vows by all states to base their standards on educational merit, politics can intrude. Insisting new social studies standards must be "politically neutral," a Michigan state senator proposed eliminating or minimizing mention of gay rights, Roe v. Wade and the term "core democratic values." In addition, Michigan Republican state Sen. Patrick Colbeck objected to the class time devoted to citizen involvement and community activism, writing in his review, "My concern is that our students are being trained to change our political system before they are instructed in how our political system is intended to work." The public uproar over his revisions has led a delay in a vote on the standards.

Earlier this month, a controversy erupted in Arizona when the state school superintendent named a creationist who believes the earth is only 6,000 years old and dinosaurs traveled on Noah’s Ark to an eight-member working group revising the state’s standards on evolution.

While opponents of evolution once pushed "balance," advocating that schools also teach creationism or intelligent design, the latest tactic is to belittle evolution as contested theory, said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education in California.

“Now, when we see a bill,” Branch said, “it’s under the rubric that teachers should be allowed to misrepresent evolution as scientifically controversial. Bills have been introduced about 75 times since 2004, but only three were enacted, in Mississippi, Tennessee and Louisiana.”

The statutes are cast as defenses of academic freedom with Mississippi’s law stating: “No local school board, school superintendent or school principal shall prohibit a public school classroom teacher from discussing and answering questions from individual students on the origin of life.”

Georgia’s faced its own evolution revolutions. In 2002, Cobb County put stickers in science textbooks warning that evolution was a “theory, not a fact.” Cobb finally agreed to remove the stickers in 2006 after a protracted legal battle that included a ruling that the stickers endorsed a particular religious belief.

In 2004, then state Superintendent Kathy Cox called evolution a “controversial buzzword” and struck the term from proposed standards, substituting “biological changes over time,” a phrase scientists condemned as meaningless. With Republican leadership in the Gold Dome aghast at the international derision and former President Jimmy Carter saying the school chief undermined the education of Georgia’s students, Cox retreated and evolution stayed.

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